The Countryside, Travel and Correspondence

Travel is generally considered by the populace to be so special and extraordinary and even dangerous an undertaking that inns take in ONLY boarders who are travelers, strangers to the area. Indeed, fellowships of the road are commonly formed among groups of merchant adventurers, carters, pilgrims, and the like who have shared the same travel route, whether inland or by water, especially joined by those who travel that route with any regularity. From pilgrims en route to the same shrine(s), to knaves in the same town, rogues and highwaymen out in the rural districts, or whathaveyou, travelers forge associations to meet again to celebrate their survival and prosperity, usually on the anniversary of the commencement or conclusion of the trip, to remember those that have passed on and to plan for the needs of those their deceased brothers left behind. This is an acknowledgement that life on the road and crossing the wilderlands can be harsh, even dangerous to life and limb, and Dame Fortune a fickle mistress.

In the case of merchant adventurers plying the same ports, this practice has given rise to the historically prominent international guilds such as the Hansa, though there are nearly innumerable social fraternities, as well, and the PC party could do worse than establish such a fraternity of their own with a regular place to meet, even build a hall for their own use with lodgings like a guild house, especially if they number five or more, to allow them to gather without danger of being viewed as a threat. Legally speaking, the definition of a riot in the period of the game is a gathering of five persons or more.

Many such fraternities make a practice of endowing chapels for the use of their members and those living local to it, which cares for the members’ widows and orphans, some providing retirement situations (home or living), or even a small hospital accommodation, combination guesthouse and infirmary. Such an establishment is a great way for the PC party to forge a strong bond and high reputation among the locals, and with the Church in particular, especially if the tie to the Church has been strengthened by the provision of a living for a chaplain and further charitable works.

There are a few pitfalls or presumptions of the modern mind that should be addressed. The first is that, while there was indeed trackless, unoccupied wilderness in the medieval world, ALL land in a given realm is owned or claimed by somebody, even if “only” the king. There really is NO such thing as a “no-man’s land”. While it may be disputed between multiple claimants or even squatted on, if or when that fact is discovered by the local noble or the king’s officials, a suit at law is sure to ensue, those doing so must appear in court, and likely the squatter(s) fined for making the “assart” or “purpresture” to the damage of the lord’s or king’s right ad title, and an inquiry ordered to determine if the interests of the king are indeed damaged or diminished, and if so by how much, and a final determination made as to whether or not the squatter can stay, as a tenant with a “fee-farm” yearly rent (commoner), purchasing the land in free ownership – forming the nucleus of a new hamlet or village (free commoner), or “in feodo” as a vassal in return for military service (noble). Broken mountain lands, poorly drained bogs, marshes and fenland, and the deeps of massive, eldritch forests where no navigable rivers reach, especially on frontiers and wild borderlands, are all likely be under the jurisdiction of one of a series of “marcher lords” (marquesses). These are granted almost complete autonomy from the king’s government in the same manner as the palatine earldoms (later elevated to duchies to distinguish the royal blood of the sons of the kings over the rest of the nobility of the realm). Their feofs guard the borderlands or frontiers beyond any districts containing any royal residences or hunting lodges. In such environs, squatting and making an “assart” or “purpresture” might go unnoticed for a number of years.

Free forestland open to the community of commoners local to it is rather scarce or limited in extent where it does occur, and often shares a boundary with an adjoining royal forest or nobleman’s demesne wood, or royal or noble chase or plaisance.

Royal forests can always be identified by the ditches and tall, dense hedges that surround them, dividing them from forest lands open to common folk, while the private groves, chases and forests are marked by wooden palisades, whether they are royal, noble, or privately owned by some wealthy commoner. The palisades are there to keep the “king’s deer” from straying into them, and to protect the trees growing in them. Unless one owns the land or woods, to take game in it is illegal. One must have a license from the owner. That game is his property. To hunt deer, one must have a license from the master of the royal forests, unless the right has been ceded to some nobleman as a feature or special consideration of the grant of that forest tract.

Trapping or otherwise taking rabbits requires a license from the one who owns the right of warren – who may or may not actually be the one living on the property. This is true of fish in the rivers and streams where they pass through the lands of various men, as well, and eels too, especially if the land is rented out from the Church. Fishing rights often went hand-in-hand with the grant of a (water-) mill. As in the modern day, ignorance of the law is no excuse. These feudal rights are common at least in character to all realms, regardless of the name by which that right is called (which varies from one country to another). A man need not know who owns the rights of game or warren or the like for a given stretch of land to stay his hand until he finds out and secures permission to hunt. The PC should understand the difference between a license given to hunt for sport, and one that allows the grantee to profit from the kill. The terms of every license granted specifies whether the grantee is allowed to kill and keep the game he chases down or let it go, taking joy only in the chase or by whiling the hours away with pole and line. If he may kill, the license state how many beasts or fish he may take and whether he must take the game himself or send a servant to take them for him, and then also whether he must consume it within his own household or it may be sold or sent as a gift. Each of these terms commands a different price to obtain the license. The greater the liberty granted, the more expensive the license and the harder it is to wheedle it out of he who owns the right of it.

Travelers are generally expected to stay to the roads and not to trouble honest folk who are out in the fields about their own business. When there is no inn, hostel, hospice, house-of-call or similar establishment where a traveler might stay on the road, camping on the “verge” or margin of the road is the norm. By law, the verge is a space that stretches 200ft. on either side of the road cleared down to the level of the grass in order to deter miscreants, bandits, brigands and highwaymen. The owner of the land through which the road runs is responsible for clearing the verge of all except large, mature trees such as oaks, so that no coppice, brushwood, ditch nor hollow remains which might serve as shelter for malefactors. If he fails to do so, any robberies, murders or other crimes occurring by virtue of that failure results in fines to be paid to the king.

Travel takes time, and most people travel on foot. While horses can walk faster, better for traveling long distances, they generally are not more than one or two available in any given village to be ridden, usually the property of a free commoner called a “radman”, and they must be rested, watered and fed with the same regularity that human folk need. Only the wealthy can afford good riding horses in sufficient numbers to really make a difference. Even with their horses, the poor “roads” are so hard on the carts that the horses are prevented from using their strength and speed in moving the long baggage trains that make a display of the noblemen’s wealth and station.

A man dressed humbly found riding on a horse is likely to be stopped and interrogated by any authorities encountered as a suspected horse-thief in any area where he is not known, for such a beast is obviously beyond his apparent financial means. A letter sealed with the owner’s mark or that of his society should be carried on such occasions to keep the rider from getting detained and sharply questioned by the local magistrate. Donkeys or asses are a viable alternative to horses for the more humble classes of society. Travel by cart and wagon is even slower than on foot, largely due to the fact that the roads are so poor they often cannot be dignified by being called roads, but are more like rutted paths. A cart may make 10 to 15 miles in a day, where the average man can walk (hike) 20 to 25 miles in a day (8 to 10 hours).

As a rule, even the free and noble cannot leave their own country without a passport from the king granting permission, and specifying the length of time for which it is good, when they must return and, in the cases of the very wealthy, the limit on how much wealth in hard coin and plate the traveler may take out of the country, lest he use it to make mischief. They may be granted for unspecified terms when issued for purposes of going abroad for education or work or pilgrimage.

While most people are well aware of the awful conditions of winter and messy weather that can afflict the land and its people, the people of the modern era are largely used to fair to good quality paved roads and comfortable cars and the machinery of snow plows which allow them to travel, even if only locally, much as they please despite all but the worst of the winter weather. From the start of the autumn rains all through the winter, the dirt tracks that generally pass for medieval roads turn to a stew of mud that can be knee deep or worse, or ice-covered slush. If the traveler can wait until a good hard freeze, all he has to deal with are uneven rock-hard ground and treacherous frozen ruts that can tear at wheels and are dangerous to horses’ legs and footing. Oh, and that pesky killing cold.

Carts are slow in good weather; in this season they are nothing but trouble, and snail’s pace trouble at that. All of this and dangerously low temperatures, despite warm clothing, and the cutting winds that drive the effective temperatures down to even more dangerous levels. Winter camping is extremely tough and trying, especially when there is no dry wood to be found and no “Coleman”® or “Sterno”® lamps or stoves or other modern conveniences. Indeed, these are only the personal hardships. There are difficulties involved in caring for any mounts and packbeasts, keeping them active and running about in the winter without adequate shelter from not just the wind, but the freezing temperatures, while the characters are tucked snugly into their tents or pavilions under their heavy sleeping furs. The beasts’ shaggy winter coats can only protect them so much. PC’s have a knack for taking themselves and their beasts and servants into the MOST inhospitable of climates without a second thought. Far beyond their simple needs to keep them from starving, these beasts require beans, oats, and the fodder that all died off after harvest time in order to keep their energy and strength up for the work they are being driven to do. There is also the danger of the snow balling up in the shoes and icing up to cause frostbite and lameness – a nightmare in general for the husbandman charged with their care.

Unless the need is dire, no one travels in the regions that are subject to a true northern winter such as is seen in England or Scotland, or the New England area of the US, until after the worst of the spring rains have passed and the ground has had a chance to drain and firm up again, well after the spring thaws. While prudent, most adventurers are no where near so conservative in such matters.

In addition, the deserted state of the roads also make it that much easier for outlaws and brigands and their ilk to haunt the highways and byways from winter encampments which may be rather close by in rough country without danger of being spotted, with a far smaller chance of the usual danger of witnesses happening by.

Letters also take time to travel between those who are literate and at long distances form one another, as well, according to the means used by the ones carrying them. They are the only means of long distance communication in the period of the game, excepting magick in the fantasy game world, and that is usually far too expensive a commodity for most commoners to afford except in case of emergency. Letters that are not trusted to a servant or agent or factor or other man of affairs to carry by horse at one’s own expense, which may take a bit of time itself, still travel much faster than the common practice of entrusting letters to a ship’s captain heading for a particular port, or to a carter traveling to the destination desired, where the one to receive the letter is located. Should the recipient be far from the beaten track, or several shires or towns away, or even in another kingdom, it is not at all uncommon to entrust one’s letter to a traveling friend or neighbor going that way, or even to a stranger passing through on his way to the letter’s destination. It is a common courtesy extended by those who are travelling to those along their route. Without any sort of regular means of sending letters available, one who is travelling in the right general direction might be entrusted with a letter to take with him and then, when he arrives there, pass it off to another who is heading to the specific destination. It is a common custom and courtesy by necessity for the period, observed as scrupulously as the rules of hospitality by those who are on the road to those they encounter along the way. The real problem with letters is tracking down the exact recipient once it has been carried to the correct town or village, due to the fact that there are no street signs – anywhere – compounded with the fact that the houses are not numbered. There are no conventional, standardized addresses as they are known in the modern world. Shipments of goods suffer from the same difficulty, except that the recipient is always notified of the name of the ship on which his goods are being sent, and an agent usually watches the ships coming in so he knows when his goods have arrived, and can direct the docking of the ship (as needed) and the off-loading of his merchandise.